The Children and the Wolves by Adam Rapp

Eighth grader Bounce — her nickname — comes from the right side of the tracks. Her parents work for a drug company, and aside from having an endless supply of oxycontin, she lives in a nice house, has little supervision, and has never had a real problem in her life. She’s confident. No actually, she’s cocky. Bounce believes she owns the world and everyone in it.

When she’s challenged by a poet in her English class, suddenly Bounce begins feeling like she’s losing her edge a bit. She’s beyond frustrated anyone would challenge her or call her out, suggest she’s not everything great and wonderful in the world. So Bounce does what she does best and decides to get revenge. Enter Wiggins and Orange, two seventh grade boys who are enamored by the idea of having the attention of such a powerful, older girl.

As a means of getting revenge on the poet, Bounce decides to kidnap a four-year-old girl who they’ve nicknamed Frog. They’ve chained the little girl in Orange’s basement and have given her a video game to keep her occupied. Bounce, Wiggins, and Orange plan on using Frog’s kidnapping as an opportunity to raise money — they’re telling people they plan on using that cash to fund supplies for creating posters and awareness campaigns of the girl’s disappearance. Of course, that money isn’t going to be used for that purpose. Bounce’s real plan is to use that money to purchase a weapon and seek her revenge on the poet.

The Children and the Wolves might be one of the riskiest books I’ve read in a while. It’s short, clocking in at only about 160 pages, but within those pages, there are so many broken characters, terrible situations, and so much to unpack. Rapp’s story is told through multiple narrators. We’re dropped immediately into Wiggins’s story, and his home life is anything but happy. His mother’s fairly useless, too preoccupied with men and other things to care about her son. He’s also from the wrong side of the tracks, and not only is this shown through his experiences at home, it’s shown through his lack of education. His chapters are not the easiest to read because Wiggins struggles with literacy issues. We’re forced to see the world through his eyes and his somewhat simplistic thinking. It’s essential to remember this when reading because at times, what Wiggins says or how he addresses certain people in the book is uncomfortable to read. There are racial slurs without consequence. While it’s jarring to readers, it’s who he is as a character. Although it seems like Wiggins might be the kind of character you’d hate, he has an immense heart and wants to do right by everyone. This is why he goes along with Bounce’s idea in the first place and why he continues to treat Frog as a pet to take care of, rather than as a human being he should help out. He likes the acceptance he received from Bounce. It’s something he’s not getting elsewhere. While Bounce’s payback scheme seems like it’s the crux of the story, I actually think this is much more Wiggin’s tale than hers.

Orange is part of the story because he’s also easily manipulated by Bounce but more importantly, he has a place they can house Frog. Orange’s father is disabled and unable to get around well at home, so his entire life is confined to the first floor of their home. Orange, like Wiggins, is from the poor side of town and sees the opportunity to serve as a tool in Bounce’s scheme as good for him. He, too, needs the acceptance. But maybe more frightening about Orange, as opposed to Wiggins, is that he’s much more inclined to violence.

The final player in the story is Frog, the kidnapped girl. She doesn’t have a lot of page time and really, she doesn’t need it. She’s much more a prop in the story than a real character, and the fact Rapp writes her that way is proof to how all of the other characters see her. She’s not a fighter at all — she doesn’t struggle to get free from Orange’s basement. Instead, she contents herself on playing a video game all day long. The video game follows a bunch of children who are in the trees trying to escape the wolves who live on the ground. It’s a game about sacrifice and power. As much as it’s a game, it’s a much larger metaphor for the entire plot of the story.

The Children and the Wolves successfully executes the multiple narrator, as well as successfully executes four distinct voices. This is a book that really does have a voice for everyone, and those voices are only heightened by the obstacles they’re trying to overcome. Rapp’s story is very mature; while all of these characters behave and speak like middle schoolers, never once did I feel like I was reading a younger YA book. It’s intended for older YA readers, and by successfully making readers forget how young these characters really are, Rapp is able to make these characters and their stories even more bleak. More than that, this story will leave you wondering who is in the right and who is in the wrong. As much as it seems like Bounce is entirely in the wrong here, her situations do leave you questioning whether or not this is an act of desperation — a plea for help — more than a nasty trick meant for payback. And as much as the boys feels like tools in her game, are they maybe more right than wrong in doing what they’re doing?

As soon as I finished The Children and the Wolves, I immediately flipped back to the beginning of the story to read it again. The story’s short length but deeply developed characters and complicated situations made me want to go back and see what other layers I could uncover. This book was recommended to me by Blythe Woolston, and I can’t help but see how similar it is to her own books. Rapp’s title will appeal to those who like their stories dark, unsettled, and with compelling and complicated characters. Do not give this to sensitive readers — it’s for your mature ones. I’ll make the bold statement now that I think this title will see some sort of award recognition at the end of the year. Despite being a relatively quiet release, it packs a punch.

I purchased my copy of the book. The Children and the Wolves is available now.

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  1. says

    I'm so glad to read a review of this! I've loved almost all of Rapp's novels and think he's one of the bravest writers out there, especially in terms of risking having the reader dislike or judge his characters. Thanks for the rec!
    —Rebecca @ Crunchings and Munchings

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